Bump in the Road

When Johnny Sexton’s move to Paris went through last season, quite a few voices suggested that it need not be bad news and that Ian Madigan, with enough exposure to top level rugby, could go on to be even better than Sexton.  We were quick to disagree.  It cannot be an improvement to discard one of the world’s elite 10s in exchange for one who might some day go on to be better.  There are too many variables in the latter.

Saturday’s match in Thomond Park rather bore out our logic.  In a game where there wasn’t a whole lot between the teams in terms of creative rugby, the game was won by Munster primarily in two areas; the breakdown and the tactical kicking game.  Munster frequently flooded the breakdown, while Leinster appeared reluctant to put the necessary numbers in to secure quick ball.  It negated Leinster’s attack, which relies on Eoin Reddan’s speedy delivery to the back-line.

The kicking battle was not even a contest.  Munster’s up-and-unders were accurate and, most importantly, brilliantly chased, with Keith Earls particularly impressive.  Even when a Leinster player caught the kick he was quickly engulfed by red shirts and couldn’t retain possession.  On one such occasion it appeared Rob Kearney had only the support of Eoin Reddan as he was swallowed up by a mass of the Brave and Faithful, and the ball was duly turned over.  By contrast, Leinster kicked loosely, and were passive in their chasing.  Much of the inaccurate wellying came from the boot of Ian Madigan.

Madigan has been rightly heralded as the next big thing in Irish fly-half play, but those who are anticipating that he will simply morph into a player of Sexton’s standing simply through playing Heineken Cup matches need to check their expectations.  His talent is unquestioned, but it takes time, and considerable learning experiences which won’t always be positive, to develop into the sort of serial match-winner that Sexton, and indeed, Ronan O’Gara were.

O’Gara wasn’t born an ice cool clutch-player, nor he did he become one overnight.  He had to earn it, through years of hard matches and bitter disappointments.  The same goes for Sexton, who had to endure frequent brickbats before maturing into a Lions test-winning ten – indeed, he once endured a spell of form so wretched it appeared he was on his way out of Leinster.  Ian Madigan will hit his share of bumps in the road and, hopefully, in overcoming those he will become a better player.  On Saturday he was outplayed by Ian Keatley, a player with a comparatively mundane skillset.  Keatley is in the same boat at Munster; replacing a provincial legend.  He had a good game on Saturday night, but he too, will have his share of issues as he tries to make the shirt his own.

The gulf between the ‘very good’ fly half who can look fantastic on his home patch and the great one, who can pilot his team to wins in Heineken Cup knockout matches and trips to the most intimidating grounds in Europe is wider than one might think.  In tough away games, refereeing decisions are usually unfavourable, the crowd will meet your every mistake with howls of derision and you need every point you can get to win.  Away wins in rugby are precious; even mediocre teams like Bath and Perpignan make for hard opponents on their home turf.  Talent alone isn’t enough; a special kind of mental fortitude is needed.  Think of Sexton’s last minute penalty to retrieve a draw in Montpellier, or the manner in which he controlled the game in Bordeaux to see Leinster through to a Heineken Cup final.  Or ROG’s half-way line penalty against Leicester to win the match, or his performance in the Stoop last season.

Some players simply don’t have what it takes.  James Hook, for all his natural ability, has never learned the fine art of consistent game management, nd his Perpignan team rarely win away.  Whether the Ians Keatley and Madigan become the next James Hook or go on to emulate the provincial legends and become serial medal-winners is still very much an open question.

P.S. How good was that James Cronin fellow?  What an impact he had!  We’ve had our suspicions that David Kilcoyne is a little over-rated by the red-clad supporters, but this chap looks The Bid’ness.

Season Proper

As has become habitual, Munster vs. Leinster has been scheduled in the pre-Heineken Cup slot, in what has come to mark the start of the ‘season proper’.  The first few weeks of the season see a gradual cranking up of the intensity as international players are slowly re-absorbed into their teams.  Or in the case of Mike Ross, thrown straight in from the off, for some reason … after a long summer off gruelling tour of North America. Maybe he needed to prove his fitness.

One difference this time is that the fixture takes place in the red bit of the country, which gives Munster a slight advantage, but one that generally means little in this most hotly contested of derbies.  The other big change is that neither of the ‘leading men’ in this drama, who came to embody everything about the great modern rivalry, will be on the pitch or even in the neighbourhood this time.  The two titans of this fixture, who so often decided it, now besties, will presumably be settling down to watch it together in Paris over foie gras terrine and a good bottle of Sancerre.

Having halted Leinster’s five-in-a-row and seemingly got the monkey off their backs a couple of years ago, Munster once again find themselves on a damaging losing streak in this fixture, losing four on the bounce.  After performing badly in the Pro12 last season, this would be as good a time as any for a morale-boosting win that would also send out a message that they mean business in the league this year.  Both teams have endured a patchy enough start to the season, though Munster have largely taken advantage of a soft batch of opening fixtures to put themselves third in the table, but neither side has ever been particularly well known for great September form.  The real thing starts here.

Team selection will be interesting for both sides, with a number of positions being keenly contested.  Munster’s baby front row of James Cronin, Damien Varley and John Ryan scrummaged impressively against the Dragons, though Leinster will represent a far stiffer test.  David Kilcoyne will most likely start at loosehead, but the other two could hold their places.  Varley or Sherry is a classic ‘set piece or loose play’ debate.  Sherry is the best thrower in the country, but Varley is a punchy carrier and his ability to jackal over the ball at the breakdown is matched by few.

At lock, Paul O’Connell has made his return, which is great news for everybody except Dave Kearney his next opponents.  Despite his injury proneness in this late stage of his career, he has a knack not so much for hitting the ground running as exploding on impact.  Donnacha Ryan will probably partner him.  After a stellar 2012, Ryan struggled has struggled this calendar year, and has looked to be playing hurt since the Six Nations.  Has some summer R&R revived his spirits? We hope so – apart from anything else, with Stakhanov surely moving out to the international second row pasture with Brad Thorn, Bakkies, Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey and Ed O’Donoghue, it’s now NWJMB nipping at Ryan’s heels and competition for places in green can only be a good thing. Right Eddie?

The backrow looks hard to call.  Tommy O’Donnell is injured and Peter O’Mahony will start.  Beyond that there’s not much to choose from between CJ Stander, James Coughlan, Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall and Paddy Butler. They provide plenty of options and a good deal of depth, but there’s a shortage of out and out class.  Stander remains an enigma; he could be the new Tom Croft or the new Clinton Huppert.  We’re still waiting for the O’Mahony-at-8 bandwagon to get rolling, but it probably needs Tommy O’Donnell back fit before it can start.  Surely it’s the best position for his rangy wide-channel running and superb ball skills?  Anyway, for Saturday: O’Mahony, Stander, Coughlan, maybe?

Half-back is no different.  Much depends on whether Conor Murray is passed fit; if not, it leaves a choice between the unproven Cathal Sheridan and the proven-to-be-awful Duncan Williams. Selection at 10 is fascinating.  ROG, and RTE’s beloved ROG-cam, have departed, so it’s a straight choice between Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan.  Those with a penchant for romance and excitement – i.e. most of us – want to see Hanrahan picked, but is he ready?  He’s looked good so far, but the opposition have been easy meat.  If he can pilot Munster to a win over Leinster then it’s his time.  But Penney will probably, on balance, go for Ian Keatley.  Either way, what intrigue awaits!  ‘Get RADGE on!’

The back-line is equally hard to call.  James Downey or Ivan Dineen, or even Hanrahan at 12?  Zebo at 11 is certain, but where to put Earls?  Centre, or on the other wing, which would bring Casey Laulala into the equation.  We haven’t joined the queue to write Earls off as a centre yet, despite his struggles last season.  He has plenty to offer there and can still improve.  Conway or Hurley at full-back?  Our guess is Zebo-Downey-Laulala-Earls-Conway, but we wouldn’t be betting the house on it.

No such certainty for the blue half either.  In the front row Cian Healy starts.  Sean Cronin continues to be the most frustrating player in the country – he can run lines like a centre, but his basics remain questionable – so Strauss probably plays.  Mike Ross has looked worryingly uncomfortable with the new scrum calls, and Marty Moore’s reputation is on the up, but it would be a shock to see Ross relegated to the bench this early in the season.

In the second row, Devin Toner has been – whisper it – one of Leinster’s best players so far and the contest between he and O’Connell at restarts will be one of the key battlegrounds of the match.  Mike McCarthy will add the grunt alongside him, just holding off the improving Quinn Roux.

Backrow is as hard to call as Munster’s.  Jamie Heaslip will start, but whether Sean O’Brien is thrown in from the off or held in reserve probably depends on what his coaches reckon he’s ready for.  Jordi Murphy has been the season’s revelation but he appears to be having surgery today so he won’t be involved – a cruel blow after such an auspicious start to the campaign.  Kevin McLoughlin will presumably have some sort of role to play.  The Gonzaga man had a quiet campaign last year but surely fancies his chances of greater international recognition if he can hit his straps this year, so he has every incentive to get motoring quickly.  Rhys Ruddock will push him hard though.  McLoughlin-O’Brien-Heaslip was gernerally Schmidt’spreferred backrow, and O’Connor may well see it as his starting point.

Isaac Boss will start at 9, where Eoin Reddan has yet to really get going, and he’ll probably be partnered by Ian Madigan, who impressed on his return to fly-half on Friday night.  Jimmy Gopperth has had a great start in Leinster colours, but Madigan’s distribution, line-breaking threat and Joe Schmidt pulling rank eligibility for Ireland should swing things in his favour for the crunch games.

The backline looks predictable enough, if D’arcy is fit: he, O’Driscoll, the Brothers Kearndashian and The Kildare Lewis Moody appear likely to form an all-Irish back division.  But if Dorce can’t make it a bit of a re-shuffle will be needed.  Already thin on numbers, and with Luke Fitzgerald still apparently injured and Lote Tuqiri also doubtful, someone like Darragh Fanning could be pressed into action in the biggest game of their career.

These games are rarely the most tactically sophisticated affairs, though last year’s match in the Palindrome was the most open in years, with both sides keen to use the full width of the pitch.  Those with short memories may have forgotten that Keith Earls was superb at outside centre on the night and looked set for a great season in the role.  But more often than not these are attritional ties, and whoever wins the physical contest usually comes away with the win.  Some of the white heat that built up in the aftermath of the Great Changing of the Guard in 2009 seemed to have disappeared from the match-up in the last couple of years but last spring’s … erm, thing, where something happened to someone’s boot or head or something … we can’t remember .. anyway, it certainly sparked the furnace back into full glow.  Let’s hope for a good clean fight.

One other thing to note is that Roman Poite is apparently refereeing.  He has plenty of ‘previous’ with both teams, and has become something of a bête noir for Munster fans in particular.  Certainly his refereeing of the scrum will be important.  Should Munster attempt a repeat of the ridiculous antics of the corresponding fixture two seasons ago when Marcus Horan was allowed to play silly buggers all night, they can expect Bad Romain to come out and penalise them to within an inch of their lives.  Leinster probably look marginally stronger on paper and should shade a tight match.  To the winner the spoils, and the bragging rights, until March anyway.